Friday, August 6, 2010

NZ: A contentious history.

This is a long one but worth a gander. If you want to learn more about NZ's rich history, its Maori people, and how it became the country that it is today, read on...

This week, I was lucky enough to take part in a 2 day course at Victoria University in Wellington to learn all about NZ’s Treaty of Waitangi (the country’s founding document). It is one of the most fascinating parts of NZ history and the single most controversial piece of documentation. I’ll do my best to give the short and sweet version:

The treaty is an agreement that was made between the British crown and about 540 Maori chiefs. It came about due to a number of factors, namely the growing number of British settlers (who arrived around the 1830s), which led to the large-scale transaction with Maori for land. This is a long and contentious story in itself but you can imagine what miscommunications could have occurred in these transactions. At the same time there developed signs that the French were interested in annexing the land. The Crown had no interest in getting involved initially but quickly realized that establishing a treaty could actually help protect Maori, regulate British establishment and secure commercial interests. Yes – it’s true – the Brits had the indigenous people’s interests at heart. Our group had some discussions around this. It seems that the British government was quite frankly making up for how they had treated other indigenous communities across the globe and didn’t want to make the same mistake again. And so, making a long story short, the treaty was established.

Lieutenant-Governor William Hobson had the task of securing British sovereignty over New Zealand. He relied on the advice and support of a guy named James Busby, the British Resident in New Zealand. The Treaty was prepared in just a few days and Missionary leader Henry Williams and his son translated the English draft into Maori.

Now here’s where it gets interesting. The document that Busby and Hobson developed was to be transcribed by Busby but unfortunately, he got sick around that time and someone else had to take on the responsibility (potential errors in language and copying could have been made here?). Additionally, Williams got sick while he was translating the document into Maori and so his son had to take over (another opportunity for error perhaps?). With the document switching so many hands, there was a good chance that something could go wrong. And indeed something did…

The treaty has 3 articles. In the English version they state that Maori handed over the sovereignty of New Zealand to Britain and Maori gave the Crown an exclusive right to buy any lands they wished to sell.

While the Maori translation was deemed to convey the meaning of the English version, it is actually quite different. In their version the word “sovereignty” was translated as ‘kawanatanga’. This actually means ‘governance’. In other words, in their minds the Maori were not giving up ownership of their land but simply the governance over it. The English version guaranteed 'undisturbed possession' of all their 'properties', but the Maori version guaranteed 'tino rangatiratanga' (full authority) over 'taonga' (treasures, not necessarily those that are tangible). Ultimately Maori understanding was at odds with the understanding of those negotiating the Treaty for the Crown and so both sides signed what they believed to be agreements in their favour. The actual treaties live in the National Archives building in Wellington and we had a chance to check them out. As you can imagine, they are strictly protected and managed which means no photography. Sorry folks – if you want to see them you’re going to have to come down and see them for yourselves!

Today there still exists major debates in parliament over who owns the land (and seas) here in New Zealand. It’s a major point of contention between the Maori people and the pakahe (‘non-Maori’). The Government did establish a Waitangi Tribunal in 1975 to investigate the Crown’s alleged breaches of the Treaty. More than 1000 claims have been submitted with the tribunal. Unfortunately, very few have actually been settled as the Government to date has paid little to no attention. Recently, however, thanks to a growing activist movement by the younger Maori generation, the Government is starting to pay attention to their concerns and demands. It’s an ongoing struggle between the two sides and there exists a tension that continues to this day.

Sorry for the long entry. I have already left big chunks of the story out but hope that you have a basic understanding of the frustrations that the Maori face today. In a lot of ways, their struggles are similar to those of the Canadian Indigenous communities at home. If this has left you wanting to learn more, there are some great websites and articles worth taking a quick gander through:

  • You can check out both versions of the Treaty here
  • Check out some of the latest conflicts regarding the Treaty in the news. As you can see, the conflicts still clearly exist today
  • Some more info about the human rights concerns around the Treaty

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